PORT CHARLOTTE — The first time Mark McGee tried to catch his son Jake's pitches, he literally felt something special.
McGee, 24, the Rays' hard-throwing left-hander, was then an 18-year-old senior at Reed High in Nevada. The two would go to the school's parking lot with a bucket of balls, many of which would end up scuffed from the asphalt — or Mark's shinguards. McGee didn't have the explosive, mid to high 90s fastball he boasts now that, combined with an improved slider and even temperament, has the Rays feeling he has the stuff to be a late-inning, impact reliever.
But a pitch to dad did the trick.
"(The ball) smacked my ring into my finger," Mark says. "I was like, 'I guess I won't be wearing my ring anymore when we play.' But it was funny."
McGee grew up in Sparks, Nev., which borders Reno's casinos and nightlife. His mother, Becky Hummel, is manager of Great Basin Brewing Company, home of the popular Ichthyosaur Indian Pale Ale, named after the state fossil and affectionately called "Icky."
But to McGee, baseball was his life. Nevada has produced 22 big-leaguers, and he had a one-track mind in becoming another. He got hooked up with local pitching coach and Angels scout Dennis Banks, who tutored him for several years, helping him become the Rays' fifth-round pick in 2004.
McGee said he didn't play any other sports, other than racquetball with his father, because he didn't want to risk getting hurt. It's the same reason he doesn't join his wife, Morgan, snowboarding.
Despite the precautions, baseball dealt McGee a career-changing injury. In February 2008, McGee entered his first big-league camp with good buddy Wade Davis and with dreams of joining him in the next wave of the rotation.
But three months later, in a start for Double-A Montgomery, McGee tore is ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. He would soon have season-ending Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, putting him on a lengthy road to recovery.
"It was pretty devastating," Mark said.
McGee knew most pitchers came back from the surgery, but not all. While McGee was rehabbing, Davis joined the Rays rotation, becoming a candidate for rookie of the year.
The experience changed McGee's mentality and his work ethic and made him stronger. "It kind of opened my eyes to different things," he said. "A huge perspective change."
When McGee finally felt like himself again, in the middle of last year, he opened some eyes. In a September callup, McGee had a rocky debut but followed with seven consecutive scoreless outings, showing impressive calm during the pennant race.
"I think he's a lot more relaxed, he's competitive and has great stuff," Davis said. "There's no reason why he can't be one of the best in the league."
While veteran right-handers Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta will get their chance to grab the closer's role the first two months of the season, McGee would eventually love the opportunity.
Maddon believes McGee has the makeup and stuff to evolve into that role, though he doesn't want to rush him. Maddon wants him to work on his slider and get more experience, with the outside chance McGee starts the season in Triple A.
"I'd rather make him into King Kong first and then turn him loose, as opposed to hope that he becomes King Kong," Maddon said.
Along the way, Mark has continued to catch him in the offseason. He still sits on the bucket and wears shin guards. But it's a lot easier.
"I just put the glove there and he pretty much hits it," Mark said. "But I've definitely gotten some bruises on my shins from over the years."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.